Unpopular opinion alert: I love a cliffhanger. Not unconditionally, though. There are some parameters around my abrupt ending love. I love a book that ends on a cliffhanger when there is another in the series to complete the story immediately following. I want the first book to build a world, throw in red herrings, and develop subplots. Then I want the story to be so good that it can’t end just yet. Duologies hold a special place in my heart because I think a two book series makes for better pacing and tighter storylines. The arc of the story is concise and keeps me enthralled through the whole reading experience.
Second unpopular opinion alert: book twos in trilogies are too often extraneous. Second books in trilogies don’t do enough work. It gives too much room for nothing to happen, for characters to meander in angst unnecessarily. It takes away from the third book’s opportunity for a grand finale because now I no longer care about this story or these characters the same way I did in book one. Duologies never disappoint me in the same way.
Below is a list of first books to get you hooked on deliciously twisty and romantic duologies, both YA and adult. Turn the surprises and emotions up to 11 please! There are more than cliffhangers — there are cliff jumpers diving straight into the next book without a second glance over their shoulder. More than unexpected twists, these also have romantic elements as a central theme rather than a secondary subplot. When perfectly paced plot meets angsty romance, I am the target audience. Take my money already, I need to know what happens.
The Kingmaker by Kennedy Ryan
An epic love story that spans a decade, The Kingmaker not only pulls on heartstrings, but tangles them up in knots. Lennix Hunter has been an activist her whole life, and when she meets a man named Maxim at a rally protesting a pipeline through her native lands, sparks fly immediately. Fast forward four years: the two meet again in Amsterdam and have a whirlwind week together, but Maxim hasn’t been completely honest with her, and she cannot be with a man from a family whose company violates all her values. What she doesn’t know is that while she’s been fighting for her family and Native people her whole life, Maxim has been fighting against his family and their company for all of his. Y’all. These two pine after each other for years. Years! And the cliffhanger? Be grateful Kennedy Ryan has already published The Rebel King because it will be the fastest click you’ve ever clicked after finishing this one.
Wicked Fox by Kat Cho
Modern day Seoul has no idea what Gu Miyoung really is and what she must do to survive. Miyoung is a gumiho, a nine-tailed fox who must devour the energy of men in order to survive. With so many evil men in the big city that no one will miss and so few people believing in the old stories, Miyoung has no problem hunting and hiding. After feeding one full moon, she comes across Jihoon being attacked in the forest by a goblin. Even though she knows better, she violates the rules of survival to rescue the boy, losing her fox bead, her gumiho soul, in the process. Jihoon knows Miyoung’s secret. He saw her nine tails the night she rescued him and remembers the tales his grandmother told him growing up. The two develop a fragile friendship. But when a young shaman tries to reunite Miyoung and her bead, it goes completely sideways. Now Miyoung has to choose between her own immortal life and the life of Jihoon, a decision made even harder by their developing feelings for each other.
Protecting the Heiress by Nana Malone
Tropes on tropes on tropes: royals, bodyguard, baby, undercover nanny, workplace. So swoony! Jax, a former royal guard, is hired by Neela as a nanny for a baby she just got custody of recently. Neela doesn’t know how to be a mom, much less a single mom of an heiress who needs to be protected at all costs. Enter Jax, the perfect nanny bodyguard combination. Jax has always wanted a family, but this was absolutely not the way he thought it would happen, and it probably shouldn’t happen this way, because having feelings for his boss, Neela, isn’t professional. But dang if these two don’t steal his heart from the very beginning despite the circumstances and Neela’s obstinance. Huge cliffhanger here, so be ready to get Tempting the Heiress immediately upon finishing.
The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon
Wyatt Croft, a trans witch in a world ruled by faeries, lost control of his magic and had to leave everything he loves, including fae prince fiancé Emyr North, to escape to the human world. Emyr refuses to accept Wyatt’s betrayal because their union was going to unite the witches and fae. So he hunts Wyatt down in the human world. Now the prince is cold and distant and has a mission to marry or risk losing the throne. At the end of his rope, Wyatt makes a deal with his now enemy, hoping to eventually escape Asalin, the faerie world, forever. As he gets to know Emyr again, he starts to realize that the boy he fell in love with is still there under a gruff exterior. Back in Asalin, witches are being treated worse than ever, and now he’s torn between saving his people or saving his own freedom.
Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall
Luc O’Donnell is in a potentially sticky situation. Tangentially famous thanks to his artist parents, Luc has finally settled into a mostly fame-free life, until his famous father starts to make a comeback and all cameras focus on Luc again. That means that the compromising photo could potentially ruin everything for him. He needs some insurance before things go viral. Oliver Blackwood is a stodgy ethical vegetarian barrister. In other words, the perfect fake boyfriend material. They are absolute opposites with nothing in common. Oliver happens to be in need of a date to a wedding, so the two strike a deal: fake date to save Luc’s reputation and Oliver’s wedding date problem. When fake dating turns into real feelings, things get more complicated.
The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas
Every 10 years, the Sun’s power must be replenished so that Sol can keep traveling along the sky and keep the evil gods at bay. Ten semidióses between the ages of 13 and 18 are chosen to compete in the Sunbearer Trials, where the winner carries light and life to the temples of Reino del Sol and the loser will be sacrificed to Sol, their body used to power the Sun Stones that protect the people for the next decade. Teo, a 17 year old Jade semidiós and the trans son of Quetzal, goddess of birds, isn’t worried about the trials because he knows he won’t be chosen. There are too many other good candidates, like his best friend Niya, daughter of Tierra, the god of Earth, who is one of the strongest heroes of their generation — or Aurelio, a powerful Gold semidiós and Teo’s friend-turned-rival. But then, for the first time in over a century, Sol chooses a semidiós who isn’t a Gold. Sol chooses Teo and Xio, the 13 year old child of Mala Suerte, god of bad luck. Now they have to compete against opponents who are stronger and better trained in five trials. If they don’t succeed, they will lose more than just honor: they will lose their lives.
Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz
Hazel Sinnett wants to be a surgeon more than anything. Being a lady in Edinburg in 1817 makes her dream next to impossible. She still goes to renowned surgeon Dr. Beecham’s lectures, even though she gets kicked out for being the wrong gender. A chance meeting with Jack Currer, a resurrection man, has Hazel thinking she can change her future. Dr. Beecham has made a deal with her: if she can pass the medical exam on her own, she — and all women after her — can enroll in studies at the university. Since she has to study on her own, textbooks alone won’t do it. She needs corpses to dissect and study as well. It’s lucky that she knows someone who digs them up for a living, then. But Jack is preoccupied with trying to stay alive in a city where grave robbers keep coming up missing and poor people keep ending up mysteriously dead. Together, they work to uncover more than just dead bodies, but secrets the city is hiding in the graveyard.
Blood like Magic by Liselle Sambury
Voya Thomas has been waiting and training for years for her Calling, a trial every witch must pass in order to come into their powers. But the unthinkable happens: she fails. When Voya’s ancestor gives her an unprecedented second chance to complete her Calling, she quickly agrees without realizing the task will be to kill her first love. Even more horrifying, if she fails again this time, the entire Thomas family will be stripped of their magic. She’s determined to do whatever it takes to pass and save her family’s magic, but there’s an additional complication: Voya has never been in love. Luckily, there’s a new genetic matchmaking service available. She decides to join the service, fall in love, and secure her family’s magic. Simple. But she doesn’t predict being matched with infuriating Luc, who wants nothing to do with her. With mounting pressure from her family, Voya is caught between her sense of right and wrong, and her duty to her bloodline. She has to find something that her ancestors want more than blood, but in witchcraft, blood is everything.
Delicious by Sherry Thomas
Verity Durant is a cook with a special talent. She can make people relive memory feelings with such vividness that it makes most of Victorian England deeply uncomfortable. When the master of the house dies, his half brother inherits the property and moves in. Stuart Somerset is pragmatic. Food is fuel, a necessity, to keep his eyes on his political pursuits. But with every meal, he cannot stop remembering a passionate night with Madam Durant from a decade before. Where was this memory coming from and why couldn’t he shake it? Verity has loved Stuart for every one of the 10 years they’ve been apart, but she can’t bring herself to reveal her identity to her new employer. Not to worry: the food does the work for her.
Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
Spin the Dawn is Mulan meets magical Project Runway. Maia is a girl in a world where women don’t get recognition for their work. After a war has claimed all her brothers in one way or another, she’s the only one left to represent her family’s tailor business when the emperor calls on them to compete to make the new empress’s wedding gown. The future empress has the highest standards and demands three dresses made from the sun, the moon, and the blood of the stars. Maia and the emperor’s enchanter, or royal magician, go on a quest to gather the materials. While traveling so closely, their feelings for each other start to grow, but they can’t possibly be together, can they? Societal norms and magical creatures alike are working to keep them apart.
I hope that you give what I what think is an often overlooked series format a chance. They are complex and nuanced, yet fast paced and succinct. You can bet there are characters you’re going to get too emotionally attached to and plot twists that seem cruel to the reader in the moment. I’m so jealous that y’all get to read these for the first time. Once you start, you’re not going to be able to stop.